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Israeli citizens who identify as Arab or Palestinian struggle with Israel-Hamas war

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The war between Israel and Hamas has inflamed emotions worldwide and provoked an internal struggle for the one-fifth of Israeli citizens who also identify as Arab or Palestinian. For many of them, this war pits their country, Israel, against their people, Palestinians, and many say it's compounded by discrimination. NPR's Lauren Frayer begins this report in Tel Aviv.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Two years ago, Samah Abou Shhadeh (ph) graduated from college and landed her first job as an economist at an Israeli financial services company in a big skyscraper in Tel Aviv.

SAMAH ABOU SHHADEH: The first Arab that come to this company.

FRAYER: She was proud. She kept her head down, worked hard. She'd commute from the old Arab town of Jaffa, where her family has lived for centuries. At work, she was careful not to talk about politics and regaled her colleagues with details of her wedding planning instead.

ABOU SHHADEH: Actually, all of them was my friends before the war.

FRAYER: But when Hamas attacked Israel last month and Israel began bombing Gaza in response, her colleagues stopped being friendly, she says. Many were posting grief and rage on social media. Abou Shhadeh shows me a video clip she posted on Instagram.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: They killed many, many of them and there was not any reason.

FRAYER: This is from a documentary movie?

ABOU SHHADEH: Yes. (Speaking Arabic).

FRAYER: About an alleged massacre of Palestinians during the war over Israel's creation in 1948. The clip is from an Israeli documentary that won awards last year. She didn't offer any commentary, just posted the clip on her personal account.

ABOU SHHADEH: On the phone. (Speaking Arabic).

FRAYER: But the next day, her boss called. Colleagues are offended, he said. A letter from HR followed, which she showed me. It says the company supports freedom of expression but that during war there is a new line, and she crossed it. So Abou Shhadeh was fired.

SAWSAN ZAHER: This is all absurd. We're not talking about feelings that are hurt, we're talking about massive political persecution against Arab citizens inside of Israel.

FRAYER: Sawsan Zaher is a human rights lawyer who represents Arabs who suffer discrimination in Israel. Many have long felt like second class citizens here, like they're seen as a fifth column whenever Israeli-Palestinian violence flares. Before this war, Zahar said she had lots of clients. And now...

ZAHER: I have 20 times more. Every phone call is people who are being fired from their jobs or suspended from colleges and universities. But they're also being arrested and indictments are being submitted.

FRAYER: Israeli police have issued dozens of indictments for incitement to violence and terror since this war began. One of those arrested and released in recent days is Haneen Zoabi, a former member of Israel's parliament.

Do you take your shoes off or keep them on?

At her home in Nazareth in northern Israel, she describes how she and five friends tried to call for a cease-fire in a public square but were detained even before they could unfurl any protest banners.

HANEEN ZOABI: We didn't have the time to hold the banners, which we were on our way, and we were six people. And the police, they didn't allow us - without banners, without anything, even to stand in the middle of Nazareth.

FRAYER: Police had denied them a permit to protest. Now, Zoabi is a prominent dissident who's been arrested before. But this time, she says, police were singing victory songs while booking her.

ZOABI: The police men and women hold the Israeli flag and they were dancing.

FRAYER: In the police station?

ZOABI: In the police station dancing. This is new, this kind of very strong sense of revenge.

FRAYER: Hamas' ability to penetrate Israeli security, to kill and kidnap so many people on October 7, it prompted some Israelis to ask whether militants had help from the inside and to eye their Palestinian neighbors with suspicion. Extremist settlers have increased their attacks on Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. More than 215 people have been killed there since the war began. Palestinians inside Israel don't dare speak up, feeling like their every move is under scrutiny, Zoabi says.

ZOABI: If you didn't open your mouth, they will start to say your silence is suspicious. It is not enough if you shut your mouth, you should express that you agree with them, you identify with them.

FRAYER: And even those determined not to stay silent have to tread carefully.

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FRAYER: Off a rural road in northern Israel, neighbors gather in a barn at dusk...

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FRAYER: ...To stealthily paint peace banners.

NABILA FARAH: We are a group of Arabic and Jewish people trying to change the situation that we are in. So we're writing that we are together, we are light in this dark.

FRAYER: Nabila Farah (ph) is a Palestinian Israeli writing those words in Arabic.

FARAH: (Speaking Arabic).

FRAYER: While a Jewish woman named Sheer (ph) writes the same thing in Hebrew. They plan to unfurl this from a highway overpass together. Sheer wants to be an ally, but she's scared herself, and she doesn't want me to use her surname.

SHEER: Because I'm afraid to get arrested. I'm a Jewish person. It used to be just Arabs, but actually nobody is immune.

FRAYER: What's happened in Israel since October 7?

SHEER: Free speech is terminally ill. There are some people who got arrested for liking, you know, pressing like.

FRAYER: For pressing like on social media to anything that could be construed as undermining Israel during this war. Back in Tel Aviv, the young economist who lost her job, Samah Abou Shhadeh, is mulling a labor lawsuit, but she's scared. She asked me not to name or contact her former employer. She's worried it could hurt her prospects for a new job, and she and her fiance have a mortgage to pay. Their wedding was supposed to be this month, but it's been delayed by the war.

We're in the beautiful old Arab quarter of Jaffa, where your family has roots. And we're looking out at the skyline of Tel Aviv, with the skyscrapers and all the big multinational companies and Israeli industry. Before October 7, you were part of that world and this world. And now?

ABOU SHHADEH: (Speaking Arabic).

FRAYER: "Now," she says, "this war has made me feel like I never belonged there."

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Tel Aviv.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMIINA'S "CAFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.